Arabic Literature in Translation: An Interview with Marcia Lynx Qualey

Sunday 15 March 202004:34 pm
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م. لينكس كيلي... منصة للأدب العربي المترجم و"الكثير من الإبداع المستقل"

Marcia Lynx Qualey is an independent writer based in Rabat. Her work in translating Arabic and Middle Eastern literature has become a landmark for students and aficionados of the Arab literary experience. Her blog passionately engages with the diverse world of Arabic Literature, and spares no effort in creatively connecting literary communities across the Arab and the English speaking worlds. 

Qualey holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Minnesota and, in addition to guiding Arab Lit, presents a fresh view on contemporary Arabic children's literature in a blog dedicated to the Arab world  (ArabKidLitNow!), runs Bulaq podcast, and covers Arabic literature for The Guardian. Her writing also appears in Al Jazeera, The New Republic, Your Middle East, and AGNI, Boston University’s online journal.

Dear  Marcia, it is a pleasure to offer you a hearty welcome to Reseef22. It is a delight to have the chance to interview you as an editor in chief of Arabic Literature blog, the unique platform for bringing Arabic and Middle Eastern Literature to an English-speaking audience.

A rich experience we share in an interview with Marcia Lynx Qualey, the editor of ArabLit Quarterly, Bulaq, and Arab Kids platforms, about Arabic literature, translation and the passion we share 

The blog’s coverage, one might say, leaves no stone unturned, including different genres from poetry, fiction, music, art to food. Exactly, what it states “what’s enjoyable to the ear, the eye and the palate”. How were you personally drawn to Arabic Literature, and how did the idea of the translation project occur?

ArabLit came about because I felt out of step, I think, with the English-language literary criticism I was reading in 2007, 2008, 2009. It didn’t reflect the works I was passionate about, and, when I did read reviews of books I cared about, I was startled to see them dismissed (There are reviews of Ibrahim al-Koni’s The Bleeding of the Stone, for instance, that still make me doubt my view of reality).

When I opened ArabLit as a WordPress blog, I’m not sure I intended to speak to anyone beyond myself. I didn’t publicize the blog, nor did I tell anyone about it. But it must’ve showed up in Google searches; Shakir Mustafa was encouraging, as was The Arabist, and later we became friends. Actually, that was what propelled it, the fuel it ran on: community. Although there were magazines that translated Arabic literature, there wasn’t a hub for noise and intel about Arabic literature and translation.

Indeed, you’re exactly right. When someone asks what we’re looking for, from contributors, I say what’s important is that by God it must be enjoyable. There’s enough in life that isn’t.

 One can’t help but notice that the blog spots the light on texts by Arab writers who, though talented, are not exactly in the spotlight in the Arab World. How, do you believe, this serves the cross-cultural understanding and appreciation of Arabic Literature?

Hm, good question! I don’t know. Maybe it seems important to be eclectic and anti-canonical, to emphasize that we’re just one marginal magazine and our opinions should not be considered determinative. Maybe it seems important to be constantly expanding the circle, inviting new people in, listening in an open way to new literary voices. Definitely my vision is to be uncomfortably open to newness.

You are no stranger to the stereotypes that Western art has created of the Arab World and of Arab characters in literature (featuring them as colonial subjects, oppressed and backward). To what extent, could serious translation projects transform the image of the Arab world to Western audiences?

I do think you could change opinions about Arabic literature, and I do think that matters. However, a successful translation project would require a very large organic component and a lot of independence on the part of cultural producers. A lot of creative independence. So, let’s imagine, for instance, that some Arab-majority country offered $500 million to seed a huge cultural translation project. Any nation that has that sort of cash would probably attach 500 million tiny strings—about which books must be included, and which books shouldn’t be translated—and the project would end up being performative instead of genuine. I mean, I don’t know, but I can’t even get a couple thousand bucks to help fund ArabLit Quarterly.

It’s different when it comes to classical literature, I think. The UAE seems to have let the Library of Arabic Literature operate organically and independently, and it is making changes to how people see the scope and importance of classical Arabic literatures. I’m glad for that.

One thing we need is more sarcastic, fun, lively cultural critique. Projects like Ruqaya Izzidien’s “Muslim Impossible.” More ridiculing these stereotypes where they stand!

Another stereotype is the representation of women in Arabic classics as being inferior and having trivial roles, and the absence of female writers. A wonderful piece by Amanda Hannoosh Steinberg, which argues against that, was posted in the blog bringing evidence that women were never absent in traditional texts. How were these roles reconstructed to substantially re-inscribe women’s identities in modern texts?

Strong women abound in contemporary texts, but English-language readers still have trouble seeing these women, since they don’t usually fit with their conceptions of what an “Oppressed Muslim Woman” is supposed to be like. Adam Talib has written about how English-language critics will dismiss an Egyptian female character, for instance, as “unbelievable” if she’s smoking hash or having sex.

Strong women abound in contemporary Arabic texts, but English-language readers still have trouble seeing these women, since they don’t usually fit with their conceptions of what an “Oppressed Muslim Woman"

Of course, all readers bring baggage to a book, and nobody sees the book “as it truly is,” whatever that would mean. But the “Oppressed Muslim Woman™” baggage really gets in the way of people being able to read contemporary Arabic literature in an enjoyable and productive way. Projects like Amanda’s should make a dent, although we humans can be…amazingly thick-headed.

While the first line of ‘Antarah’s mu’allaqa, ( هلْ غادرَ الشُّعراءُ منْ متردَّم) is traditionally translated into “Have the poets left a single spot for a patch to be sewn?”, James Montgomery provides a reading which departs markedly from the traditional one: “Did poetry die in its war with the poets?” Similarly, The Unfaithful Translator by Fawaz Haddad was featured in the blog, about a translator who “disdains strict fidelity to the text”. Do you support this notion in translation? I don’t necessarily mean deviating from the course of events, but to make culture-specific terms in the source text comprehensible to an English-speaking audience?

I think/hope Fawaz meant to be funny in The Unfaithful Translator. Anyhow, I read it as funny, although that’s part of my baggage…I desperately want things to be funny.

I do think there’s room—particularly with classics, where there are many “faithful” translations already in existence—to adapt, to play with, to respond to texts. ALQ was honored to publish some of Yasmine Seale and Robin Moger’s experimental Ibn Arabi translations. I was at a translation event in D.C. a couple years ago, and hands down the most fun and wonderful panel was the one about experimental translations.

It’s another thing entirely to do what the translator did in The Unfaithful Translator, naturally. Humphrey Davies has talked about editing the politics of a work he was translating—in particular, a word he considered a slur—and when the author found out, this author was angry, and the word went back in. I do understand Humphrey’s impulse, absolutely. But surely no one should be changing the politics or vision of a work. (If you don’t like it, don’t translate it. Probably?)

Safia Ouarezki has been interviewed in the blog about her comic book Fatma of the umbrella, a comix written in Algerian Derja, which was translated by Lotfi Nia. And even though Adab al-Nawader has an extensive history in Arabic literature, it is already a challenging task to maintain the sense of humor in the target text. Translating Arabic comix seems to be even more challenging especially with the different dialects. What issues could arise in translating such works?

There’s a chapter I sometimes think about, in Translating Egypt’s Revolution, ed. Samia Mehrez, about translation and humor. Humor is so associational in so many delicate and fragile ways; a single image or phrase can trigger laughs because of all the associations it tugs on. Or, in translation, it might not trigger any associations. Not only that, humor is often pun-based; Jonathan Wright describes not being able to translate a Viagra joke in Khaled al-Khamissi’s Taxi  because he couldn’t find a way to express what wuquf does. He just yanked it out.

In this case, I think, a translator has to be pretty flexible, in a way that Arabic translation typically hasn’t been flexible. (Arabic-English translation has historically been so close to academia that a rigid “faithfulness” has been paramount.) But if the text makes you laugh in Arabic, it should probably make you laugh in English. The translator needs to be a master of hearing the effect of the Arabic and re-creating it in English. I have a lot of faith that Deena Mohamed will be flexible with her own text when translating the graphic novel Shubeik Lubeik, for instance.

We have witnessed the evolution of post-colonial literature in Africa, India and Afghanistan in theory and practice. As the editor of ALQ, have you dealt with Arabic post-colonial texts which evolved to create a distinctive character in this classification?

I think I will have to answer by riffing on a couscous metaphor… Anny Gaul has a lovely essay in the upcoming ArabLit Quarterly about the histories of couscous, how it was likely born in Western North Africa, moved around the region and appeared in many classic cookbooks, and then retreated again as cuisines became more national and nation-focused, in part as a way of pushing back against colonialism.

Literatures, too, developed markedly national characteristics in the twentieth century. Maybe we’re starting to see more cross-border collaborations, collaborations-in-exile, online collaborations, and those patterns will shift again in the twenty-first. Maybe we’ll also see more couscous in Alexandria again, who knows.

Out of Place “is a record of an essentially lost or forgotten world” as Edward Said started his memoirs. Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Saleh was reviewed by The Observer as “An Arabian Nights in Reverse, powerfully and politically written.” Malika Oufkir’s The Prisoner was featured in the Boston Review as “part of an extensive Moroccan testimonial literature, which examines life in a kingdom of fear and secret prisons.”

Do you believe that the Syrian, the Iraqi and Yemenis writers were tempted to record their secret forgotten worlds through testimonial literature inspired by the crisis that these places still witness today? Have you come across examples of diasporic, hybrid or maybe more politically-critical writings?

I find that contemporary hybrid writings, such as Zeina Hashem Beck’s “duet” poems , which move between Arabic and English, and poet Siwar Masannat who weaves together Arabic and English literary and social histories in really wonderful ways, are texts which fundamentally question power and language. Sulaiman Addonia just announced a new literary prize for writing, called “To Speak Europe in Different Languages: Hybrid and Collective Writing” that encourages authors to weave together work in English, Arabic, Somali, Amharic, Tingrinya. I think we’ll be seeing more experimental, hybrid, cross-lingual work.

I have, personally, worked on three texts by the Palestinian writer Sahar Khalifeh for an M.A thesis in comparative literature. I had to translate passages from two of them (Bab al-Saha and Muthakarat Imra’a Gheir Wqe’ia) because they were not available in translation at the time. I can say it warms my heart to know that one of them has been already translated. How could the translation of such texts serve the re-inscription of the Palestinian national identity and accentuate women’s roles in the struggle for their national and social liberation, in western communities?

Ohh one of the things I love about Sahar’s work is how she re-inscribes sharp and iconic moments of socio-political conflict—the sorts of moments we usually associate with Important Men, such as the Intifada and the Nakba—through the lives and concerns of ordinary women. Her texts have taught me so much, personally, about the ways I saw conflict, and how I might shift my perspective. I think they have a lot to teach many of us.

"One of the things I love about Sahar Khalifeh’s work is how she re-inscribes sharp and iconic moments of socio-political conflict—the sorts of moments we usually associate with Important Men, such as the Intifada and the Nakba—through the lives and concerns of ordinary women"

I’d also love to see a greater breadth of Palestinian literature available in translation. Contemporary poetry like Asmaa Azeizeh, contemporary novels like Alaa Hlehel’s, a lot of playtexts, some of the amazing YA literature (Sonia Nimr, Huda El-Shuwa). And I’ love to see a line of twentieth-century Palestinian classics come out: As well as Bab al-Saha, for instance, Emile Habibi’s Sextet of the Six-Day War, Samira Azzam’s The Clock and the Man.

Censorship is a harsh fact in the Arab World, and the banning of books has escalated recently especially in aftermath of Arabic Spring movements, which, in turn, could hinder the literary productions of Arab writers. How did that reflect on your work in translation?

Censorship is a multi-headed hydra: of course, there is flat-out bald-faced government censorship, such as Egypt putting Ahmed Naji in prison for the chapter of Istikhdam al-Hayah that appeared in print. But this sort of “open” censorship is the tip of a very large glacier. A Yemeni writer I like, Wajdi al-Ahdal, recently tweeted something to the effect that Arab readers prefer foreign novels because they know foreign novelists are writing in free conditions, and that free conditions produce better novels. I think it was a provocation more than a settled opinion. But I think there is something to what he’s saying. There are obvious red lines, sure. But there are also the thousand cuts that make us afraid to write as boldly and beautifully as we otherwise might.

On the other hand, I think Dunya Mikhail also has a point in saying that, when she wrote in Iraq, she knew the red lines, while in the US the glacier of censorship is largely submerged, and also largely driven by $.

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